Eyes on Ethiopia: The Danakil Depression

Ethiopia is a country of contrasts, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Danakil Depression — the geological wonder of the Afar Region that borders Eritrea and Djibouti. A hot, harsh, inhospitable climate, much of the developed world would deem it unliveable by standards ancient or modern. Yet it’s been home to humankind for millennia, and the region’s ever shifting, sun-blasted landscape teems with the rich secrets of our hominid ancestors.

Our journey into the Danakil Depression began with a short flight from Addis Ababa to Mek’ele, capital city of Ethiopia’s Northern Tigray Region. There, our tribe of seven intrepid travellers met guide Michael Atsbeha and his crew from Danakil & North-Ethiopia Tours, and squeezed into the Land Rovers that would alternately serve as respite from the oppressive and omnipresent heat, bonding agents for our tribe, and motorized hounds of hell hurtling us down the dust-streaked path to Hades.

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For centuries, the Afar – a nomadic tribe of desert-dwelling agro-pastoralists — have made the long, arduous trek from surrounding villages to the Danakil Depression to mine salt from the vast desert basin that was once part of the Red Sea. While the addition of snaking tarmac roads linking the highland city of Me’kele with the villages of the Danakil has elevated tourist travel in the region from unbearably harsh to just below tolerable, the fiercely independent Afar steadfastly cling to the time-honoured traditions of the ancient salt trade. They make the journey on foot, in endless and ever meandering caravans of humans, camels and donkeys.

The first day of our journey was spent almost entirely on the road — and off-roading on some of the roughest terrain we’d ever travelled — in our own modern-day caravan of Land Rovers and pick-up trucks. From the roof of his Land Rover, Chance captured part of one caravan’s journey in the spectacular time-lapse video below:

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Along the way, we stopped at remote villages to eat, change flat tires and pick up a rotating skeleton crew of local police officers and military men to accompany us through an area that is unarguably among the world’s most dangerous for travellers. Our Land Rover was lacking a functional air conditioning system, so despite an initial surge of excitement and adrenaline, the lull of the wildly careening and oppressively hot vehicle sent us intermittently into head-lolling, sweat-soaked slumber.

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The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on earth in terms of year-round temperatures, with record historical highs of 65 °C (149 °F). We visited in what the locals refer to as the “cool” season — a relative term that was more misnomer for a group of Canadians and even our lone American who’d lived a nomadic childhood in the hot climes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Thailand. During the day, 46 °C was the common high, cooling down to 30 °C overnight. There is no escaping a suffocatingly palpable heat like that. Our stores of water quickly climbed several degrees above tepid so that no matter how much we drank, we could never quite slake a thirst that was as omnipresent as the sweat trickling from every pore on our bodies.

On our first night in the desert, we set up camp at a small outpost near the sulfur lakes and salt mines of Dallol. After a delicious dinner prepared in a stick-hut kitchen by our cook Zwede, we gathered the camp’s widely scattered cots into a tightly packed formation — in an unspoken agreement that there is safety in numbers. As tough and hardy a people as we discovered the Afar to be, they were exceptionally lean, and looked as though they could be knocked over with a feather. The fact that they all carried AK-47s provided a modicum of comfort. That night, we all lay wakeful under a blanket of stars in middle of the desert, with a dust-filled wind as unrelentingly hot as a turbine-powered blowdryer pummelling our sweat-drenched bodies. Never have I felt as much a part of nature’s fabric — or more at the mercy of its power — than I did that first night. As hot as that wind was, each time it rushed over me, carrying a smattering of dust with it, I felt as though it were offering me whispering secrets of the past. My heart was open and fanciful enough to listen.

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In the wee hours of the following morning, we piled back into the Land Rovers to make our way to Dallol. At more than 100 metres below sea level, Dallol offers panoramic views of the most colourful, otherworldly terrain on earth. Thin crust covers pools of technicolour acid that bubbles to the surface through hot springs. Geysers furiously spit toxic gases. Sweltering sandstorms the locals call fire wind are a constant threat. Dallol is a dizzying and relentless assault on the senses. As you traverse the salt-crusted ground, feeling it shatter like spun glass beneath your feet, you are enveloped in a swirling sensory storm of blinding neon colours, rising steam, and the pungent, nostril-burning scent of sulphur. The watchful presence of the military — and no other lifeforms in sight for miles — amplifies the feeling that you’ve somehow stumbled onto an alien planet.

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When our guide Michael offered our dust-streaked, sweat-soaked, heat-stroked tribe the opportunity to visit a waterfall near the town we planned to stay in that night, we felt more than a little kinship with the biblical Moses and his Israelites who found manna during their sojourn in the desert. While the locals used the natural waterfall for practical purposes — washing vehicles and clothing — they were infinitely amused to watch a group of foreigners frolic in the icy cool water. As we discovered again and again throughout our trip, the sounds of play and laughter break down the barriers imposed by age, gender, language, race, creed and culture swiftly and effectively. We all felt youthful, free, and more connected to humanity during those stolen moments in the waterpark that nature built. We danced like no one was watching — and put smiles on the faces of those who were.

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The next morning, we got a glimpse into the gruelling working lives of the Afar men at the Dallol salt flats. The salt blocks that were once used as currency in Ethiopia are still white gold to the Afar. And the ancient methods used to extract it are still back-breaking. Thousands of camel herders and salt extractors use traditional hoes, axes and sticks as levers to cut and lift heavy blocks of salt from the unforgiving earth. We observed the exhausting process for an hour or two in the glare of the mid-day sun, walking amongst the Afar, careful not to disrupt their work. As the sun beat down on our tribe and theirs, we sweated buckets, gasped for air like fish out of water, and drank countless litres to rehydrate — while they toiled on, barely breaking a sweat and never once pausing to drink. While the Afar have been described as a ferocious and aggressive tribe — likely due in part to the heavy scarring and sharpened teeth we spotted on people throughout the region — our respectful and unobtrusive observance of their way of life was met with quiet acceptance of our presence.

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From the salt flats, we made our way to a military outpost near the base of Erta Ale, one of the world’s only continuously active volcanoes, to relax and refuel in preparation for our night hike to the volcano’s peak. The 2,011-foot high volcano is the only one in the world to boast two active lava lakes. The surface of a lava lake and the magma chamber below it form a constant convecting system that allows it to remain active. Otherwise, it would cool and solidify. Beneath the ground surrounding Erta Ale is an enormous pool of active magma. The lake goes through cycles and will cool, form a black layer on top, and then suddenly convect back into liquid lava. Sometimes, fountains of lava form due to pressure, and spew forth in 6- to 13-foot-high arcs. The volcano has erupted several times throughout recorded history — in 1873, 1903, 1940, 1960, 1967, 2005 and 2007. In recent years, tourists have been kidnapped near its base, taken over the border into Eritrea, and sometimes killed.

Those very real dangers sat simmering on the back burners of our minds, which were bubbling over with excitement for the night of once-in-a-lifetime adventure before us. While we waited, Bryan, Gabe and Ryan started a game of frisbee, which soon attracted a crowd of observers — from our local crew to the military men guarding our base camp. Again, we witnessed the transformative and connective power of play at work.

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At 7 pm, we began what would be an eventful four-hour climb to the peak of Erta Ale. Rebecca, who hadn’t been feeling well following our sun-baked exploration of the salt flats, threw up shortly before we set out — and at quickly increasing intervals throughout the hike upwards. The vulnerability and danger of our situation wasn’t lost on any of us, but we soldiered on through the night, sweat streaming down our faces and backs, hearts beating an exhilarated, staccato tattoo against our rib cages.

After we reached our camp at the peak, we ordered bed rest for Rebecca, who’d had to be carried up the last 10 minutes of our hike on a camel — and carefully picked our way over fragile ground to the cavernous mouth of the volcano, the hazy orange-red glow of which had been clearly visible for the last few hours of our ascent. The Afar call Erta Ale the Gateway to Hell — and you can clearly see why as you stand at its widely yawning mouth, with the heat of its fury burning your face, and sparks of its outrage at your presence floating perilously close to you on the winds that appear alternately to calm or stir it. An avid reader with a fanciful imagination and a passion for the fantasy genre, I couldn’t help but call to mind Tolkien’s fictional world of Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom as I stood awestruck in the darkness, watching plumes of molten lava rise up in violent protest against their containment.

I have a deep-seated fear of heights, a fear that constantly wars with and loses to my love of adrenaline-pumping adventure. Speechless with wonder at the magnitude of nature’s beauty, power and wrath, we stood watching — even posing for photos inches from its crumbly edge — for close to two hours. It was at once the most fundamentally thrilling and terrifying experiences any of us — a well-travelled bunch — has ever had. After camping for a few sleepless hours at the peak, shaking with the adrenaline thundering through our veins, we started the four-hour hike back down at 4 am. We arrived at the base of Erta Ale in the full morning sun — grimy, sweaty, and forever changed by the experience, another checkmark on our collective bucket lists.

Stay tuned for the next instalment in my Eyes on Ethiopia series, in which I explore the unrivalled warmth and welcome of the Ethiopian people, who have an uncanny ability to accept and celebrate the differences they observe in Westerners.

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2 Comments on “Eyes on Ethiopia: The Danakil Depression

    • Thank you! Next one is live – shared it on Facebook. A bit more personal and introspective than the others, which I though fitting as 2014 draws to a close.

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